Justice in Massachusetts: Get It Now With One Easy Payment Of $75.00!

By James Baxter, NMA President

In the thin air atmosphere of appellate court deliberations it is sometimes difficult for we mere mortals to grasp the logic and rationale of great legal minds. That is unless we get back down in the mud of vested interests, obfuscation, and contorted self-serving reasoning.

A few years ago the Massachusetts’ Legislature passed a law requiring traffic ticket defendants to pay $75 in “filing fees” to defend themselves in the traffic court system.

If the defendants won their case they were not refunded the filing fees.

Consequently the state made it a win win, for the state; issue a traffic ticket, no matter how bogus or undeserved and at a minimum it makes $75.

The obvious motive for the law was to plump up state revenues.

The other only slightly less obvious intention was to discourage ticket recipients from going to court, thereby reaping the full value of the tickets without the expense of a perfunctory trial.

Enter Ralph Sullivan, a Boston attorney. Ralph received a traffic ticket that he felt he should challenge. Ralph paid the first $25 fee to obtain an administrative hearing. He lost. He then paid a $50 fee to go before a real judge in a court where there was some semblance of due process employed. This time Ralph won. Ralph then made a motion to have his $75 in fees refunded. The judge denied the motion and Ralph appealed that decision.

Ultimately, the case ended up in Massachusetts’ highest court and the National Motorists Association, NMA, filed an amicus brief in support of Ralph’s position.

While Ralph’s brief focused on equal protection issues (motorists are charged these fees but non-traffic ticket defendants are not charged these fees) the NMA brief targeted due process issues, not the least being the clear language in the Massachusetts’ Constitution that states:

“Every subject of the commonwealth ought to find a certain remedy, by having recourse to the laws, for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive in his person, property, or character. He ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay; conformably to the laws.”

The brief also addressed federal due process protections as applied to the states via the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently handed down their decision, which ruled against Ralph Sullivan’s “equal protection” argument and upheld the obnoxious fee system for traffic ticket defendants.

The only mention of due process rights was the court’s claim that the issue wasn’t raised in the Sullivan brief (although it was touched upon in the oral argument) and that the state did not have the opportunity to fully develop a brief dealing with the due process issue.

That the NMA emphasized this issue in its brief (which was also made available to the state prosecutor) was seemingly ignored? This raises the obvious question “why submit an amicus brief if the court isn’t going to consider the arguments in that brief?” This is particularly vexing when the Court specifically notes that these very arguments are critical to the issue at hand!

The justices are not so dense as to not know the nature and substance of the due process arguments. Nor are they oblivious to the facts that this law deters traffic ticket defendants from challenging their tickets, and in so doing increases the revenue state and local governments generate through the traffic ticket industry.

The most likely conclusion is that the Supreme Judicial Court doesn’t want to turn off the money spigot, particularly not now when the Commonwealth is hard pressed for cash.

So much for obtaining justice freely and not being obligated to pay for it.

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